Northern Ireland news

RHI overspend spells tough budget challenge for finance minister

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir will factor in RHI commitments in his forthcoming budget

THE cost of Stormont's botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) will be used to "justify heaping austerity upon austerity", it was claimed last night.

The green-energy scheme overseen by Arlene Foster at the now-defunct Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) is expected to burn a huge hole in the Executive 's budget for years to come.

While the British Treasury will meet some of the overspend caused by a failure to cap money being claimed, the impact on the north's finances over the next 20 years could be more than £400m.

The immediate task of deciding where cuts must be made so the Executive can meet its costly obligations to RHI claimants falls on finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir.

The Sinn Féin minister plans to unveil his draft spending plans for the next financial year on December 19.

Last night a Department of Finance spokesman confirmed that costs associated with RHI will be factored into the "Executive’s deliberations" on setting a 2017-18 budget.

"These deliberations will incorporate the latest assessments on costings and any associated policy initiatives being progressed," the spokesman said.

Arlene Foster speaking to the Irish News in October:

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood warned that the north can expect further cutbacks as a result of the RHI overspend.

"Instead of addressing the needs of the 42 per cent of homes in Northern Ireland who experience fuel poverty or the 25 per cent of children living in poverty, minister Ó Muilleoir will no doubt tell us that he has no money and that we must all tighten our belts," the Foyle MLA said.

Mr Eastwood accused Sinn Féin of "not wanting to do anything or say anything that would upset the DUP".

He added: "Given the very serious impact that Arlene Foster’s involvement in this scheme has had on public finances, minister Ó Muilleoir should make clear if he supports my call for the first minister to appear before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to face full and frank questioning?"

Sinn Fein has described the waste of public money under RHI as an “unacceptable dereliction of responsibility” and said Mrs Foster should "provide a full account and set the public record straight on this issue”.

Last month The Irish News revealed that an unwritten convention means the First Minister will not face questioning from PAC regarding her oversight of the RHI.

In an interview in October she refused to accept any responsibility for the scheme's shortcomings.

Ulster Unionist economy spokesman Steve Aiken also said the "budgetary crisis" created by the RHI commitments would impact on the Department for the Economy’s policy priorities.

"With a budget announcement pending, the finance and economy ministers must come up with a credible plan for mitigating the financial disaster left by the mismanagement of the RHI – however, have they the capacity to deliver?"

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